“A Bullet for Mr. Sweet” – Fiction by E.L. Siegelstein

Chocolate – Salvador Dali, 1930

An infamous candyman becomes the target of a disgruntled former associate in “A Bullet for Mr. Sweet,” E.L. Siegelstein‘s scrumdiddlyumptious short story from our Fall 2017 issue.

{ X }

DEATH HAD CAUGHT UP TO THE OLD MAN AT LAST. 

After too many years and too many miles. Six times, the trail had gone cold, but the killer persisted. Three times, he had come close, missing the old man by mere minutes in Pittsburgh, seconds in Dublin. The old man had seen him then, electric blue eyes meeting his through the glass of the taxi window, but hadn’t shown any sign of recognition. But the killer, who most people knew simply as Chuck, persisted. The Salt Family provided him with all the money he needed. The fat German furnished an extensive network of contacts throughout Europe and the Americas. Little Mikey T. provided the gun, the cold steel Derringer .45 Chuck clutched in trembling fingers in the pocket of his green army jacket. And now, in a hotel bar in Cleveland, of all places, he finally had the old man cornered.

The old man bellied up to the bar, pushing himself up onto the stool with the cane he always carried. He had to be at least 90 years old, but he didn’t look it, not at all. His hair was white, but it was all there, an unruly puff of cotton candy on his head. His eyes still held all their power, darting around the room, laughing at everything they saw. The old man had gone by many names. In some places he was known as the Candyman, in some places he was Mr. Sweet. Then there was his original name, the most famous name of them all, but he hadn’t used it in ages, which was just as well, as the very thought of that name made Chuck want to vomit.

The old man caught the bartender’s attention, and ordered a Double-W on the rocks, adding, “And you know what? Let’s make it a double,” smiling like it was the cleverest thing in the world. It was the old man’s own whiskey, too, from a distillery he’d founded only a few years ago. Nobody knew how he managed to make young whiskey taste like it had been aged for decades, but knowing him, Chuck guessed it was something inane, like boring it with political speeches or something.

Chuck took the stool next to the old man’s and ordered a beer. The old man didn’t even look at him, seeming completely enwrapped in tasting his own drink, swirling the whiskey around his teeth with eyes closed.

“Hello,” Chuck said, simply.

The old man swallowed. “You know,” he said, opening his eyes, “most people drink to make themselves happier. But the problem is that alcohol, on its own, is a depressant. Everyone knows that, of course, but strangely nobody’s tried to do anything about it. They just accept it as a ‘fun fact’ and go on making depressing whiskey. Except for this one. It has happy things, like childhood memories of Christmas morning, the first ray of sunshine after a summer storm, a new lover’s smile. They’re subtle, but they’re there.”

“I heard it was just a trace amount of MDMA.”

The old man shrugged. “For a whiskey to be classified a bourbon, the mash needs to be at least 51% corn. What you do with the rest of it is entirely in the hands of the maker.”

Chuck took a slug of beer and turned in his stool to face the old man, his right hand still clutching the Derringer in his pocket. “You’re a hard man to find,” he said.

“No, I’m not,” the old man replied. “I’m right here. You’ve found me.”

“I’ve been looking for years.”

“Oh, well, I only got here five minutes ago, so there were probably more productive things you could have been doing with that time.”

“Do you know who I am?” Chuck asked.

The old man gave him a quick look-over, eyes laughing. Chuck’s sweaty fingers tightened around the comforting metal piece. Part of him said do it now, just plug him and be done with it, but he resisted. Not before the man recognized him. Not before he acknowledged what he had done.

“You’re too scared to be a reporter. Not dressed well enough for a lawyer. Unless that’s the world’s smallest sample case you’re clutching ever so tightly in your pocket, you don’t look like a salesman.”

“We’ve got unfinished business.”

“Oh, no,” the old man said, and took another sip of his whiskey. “Our business was concluded a long time ago, Charlie.”

Chuck’s heart pounded. “So you do recognize me.”

The old man gave a barely perceptible nod. “You’ve grown up. I’d really hoped that you wouldn’t.”

The last time they had spoken, when the old man ruined Chuck’s life forever, he had been a scrawny, half-starved, wide-eyed, tow-headed boy, still more than a year from puberty. Now he was tall and strong, lean muscle honed from a lifetime of scraps, eyes sharp from decades of looking out for that shiv in the dark.

The old man asked, “How’s your grandfather?”

“Dead,” Chuck said.

“That undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns. That’s too bad. I really liked him. So, what have you been up to?”

Chuck glared at him. “You don’t know?”

“Ha!” he laughed. “My dear boy, I have a hard enough time keeping track of where I’ve been. That factory had been my entire life for so long, once I was finally free of it, I just wasn’t going to be stopped! I’ve visited every country in the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe in alphabetical order, which is, in retrospect, not the most efficient way to see them all. I’ve climbed to the tippy-top of Mount Everest and explored the Marianas in a submarine. I started fifteen new businesses, sold eight of them, passed three on to worthy heirs like yourself, and remain a managing partner in two of them. I…”

The old man suddenly stopped. “Wait,” he said, and began to count on his fingers. “Passed three on, sold one two three four five six seven eight, still have two… did I sell the brewery?”

“You had a brewery?” Chuck asked.

“Oh yes, I started that one up in the Pacific Northwest. Good climate there for raising rabbits.”

“Rabbits?”

“You need them for the hops, but let’s not get distracted. I remember, I did sell the brewery, but kept the greeting card company, passed on the funeral parlor, so that’s eight and three and two and…”

The old man shrugged. “And I have no idea what’s become of the rest. I might still own them, I might not. I hope they’re okay. So, what’s become of my factory?”

Chuck grit his teeth, saying, “That fucking factory…”

“Oh no, no no no,” the old man interrupted. “It was a chocolate factory, it made candies and sweets…”

“Shut up,” Chuck said. “You stop talking, God, I forgot about the talking, always so fucking clever. You shut up, right now. I went to prison, you son of a bitch. My whole family went to prison, all except Grandpa Joe, who had a coronary when the police showed up…”

“I suppose that’s one way to avoid the situation, but…”

“I said shut up. It was your fault, it was all your fault.”

“Huh,” the old man scoffed. “I heard the younger generation had no concept of personal responsibility, but I’d always thought you were different, Charlie.”

“Personal responsibility? You had so thoroughly scrubbed yourself from every document related to that factory, there was reasonable doubt that you ever actually existed!”

“I had given it to you, the whole thing. That was the deal.”

“You knew, full well, that…”

“That it was completely staffed, running at full operational capacity, producing the highest quality, best loved candy in the world. It was a self-contained perpetual chocolate-making machine, and all you had to do was enjoy it, and not muck it all up. I take it things went otherwise.”

Chuck tightened his grip on the gun. “That factory was found to be in gross violation of 6,482 health and safety regulations…”

“You let inspectors in?”

“It was staffed with slave labor!”

“The Oomp-”

“They’re called the Oun’parai! That’s the name of their tribe, not some ridiculous baby-talk gobbledy-gook! And you, you bought them, you bought the entire tribe, and you made them work in your factory for nothing!”

“They chose to come with me, of their own free will.”

“They couldn’t leave the factory.”

“They didn’t want to leave the factory.”

“They thought you were a god.”

The old man sighed. It was a deep sigh, from the quietest corners of his heart. The kind of sigh Chuck’s father would make only in the dead of night, when he’d sneak out of bed for a secret drink, not believing anyone was awake to hear him in the one-room hovel they called a house.

The old man said, “I know.”

He slugged back the rest of his whiskey and turned to face Chuck.

“I know you have a gun in your pocket,” he said. “I know you intend to use it on me. I know you think all the tragedy that’s befallen you is somehow my fault.”

Chuck was incredulous. “Somehow?”

“Let me ask you, Chuck. Who owns the factory now?”

“Who cares?”

“It’s important!” the old man said, slapping the bar with his hand. “Obviously, the factory is still producing, and the quality hasn’t changed, I would know if it had. Slugworth couldn’t have bought you out…”

Chuck shook his head. “The judge awarded it to the Oun’parai. It’s tribally-owned now.”

The old man nodded. “And Lumpy is still the chief? Or, I’m sorry, Loomn-peh?”

“I… I don’t know. I think… yeah, it was Lumpy back then, during the trial and all, I don’t know if he’s still…”

“Yes yes yes, fine fine.”

The old man waved to the bartender, pointing at his empty glass. “Same thing, please,” he said, then turned back to Chuck.

“You see, son, the ‘Oun’parai’ – which they stopped calling themselves after I brought them off that hellhole of an island, but we’ll move on for now – they weren’t slaves, not by any definition. They were, in fact, part owners of the factory, with a full share in all the proceeds. And they could, in fact, leave whenever they wanted. Not many do, but a few have, here and there. A lot of the young ones go for a while, and then they come back, like the Amish with Rumspringa.”

The bartender refilled his glass, and the old man thanked him with a nod and a smile. The bartender looked at Chuck, but Chuck’s beer was still mostly full, so he left the two of them alone and found someplace else to be. The old man took a sip, then continued:

“Because, young Charles, you’ve got one thing very wrong:  it’s not me they worship, it’s the factory. The world of pure imagination that they’ve dedicated their lives to. Making my chocolate is a holy rite to them.”

Chuck shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“Well, here’s the thing. I know the standard business practice is that both parties to a contract keep their own copy. In case there’s any dispute. But, well, I’m sure you know my feelings about standard business practices. So there’s only one copy of my contract with the tribe, and it’s in their possession. Lumpy has it.”

Chuck slumped in his barstool, head pounding. For the first time since entering the bar, he let go of the gun, took his hand out of his pocket. It didn’t make sense, none of it made any sense anymore…

“He testified at the trial,” Chuck said. “He testified against me.”

“Well, then I’m afraid old Lumpy must have perjured himself. He must have really disliked you.”

Chuck thought about the orange-faced pygmy, tearfully telling the jury how his people had been forbidden from ever leaving the grounds, that Chuck would have them beaten if they tried. He clutched at his beer with both hands and drank deeply.

“Now, don’t do that,” the old man said. “That was the first thing I told you when you sat down at this bar, drinking isn’t going to make you any happier. Here.”

The old man reached into the inside pocket of his velvet suit jacket and pulled out a golfball-sized piece of chocolate, wrapped in clear cellophane. He set it down on the bar, next to Chuck’s glass. Chuck stared at it. Despite everything, despite himself, the sight of the chocolate brought him back, back to his childhood, back to when such a thing would be the greatest treasure he’d ever dare to hope for. He peeled off the plastic and bit the chocolate ball in half.

The shell gave easily beneath his teeth. Inside was warm caramel, impossibly warm. The warmth coursed through Chuck’s whole body, starting at his tastebuds and radiating outward, across his face and down his spine and into his toes, then back up to his ears. It was better than anything, better than anything he’d ever tasted, better than anything he’d ever done. Tears came unbidden to his eyes, as the taste of chocolate warmed Chuck’s very soul.

“The old man’s still got it, eh?”

Chuck nodded, popping the rest of the chocolate into his mouth and chewing slowly.

The old man sat back in his stool. “Do you remember why I gave the factory to you?”

Chuck swallowed, then licked his teeth, not wanting to waste a single atom of sweetness. “I won,” he said. “I made it through the tour without… you know. Tragic incident.”

“Yes,” the old man said, “but why did I bother with all of that? The tickets, the tour, the tests?”

“You wanted to give the factory to a kid,” Chuck said.

“And why?”

Chuck thought about it for a second. “Because a kid would keep things the way they were.”

“That’s right,” the old man said. “It wasn’t just important to me, it was important to Lumpy and to the whole Oun’parai nation.”

He drank his whiskey and gave Chuck a meaningful stare.

“So,” he said. “What did you change?”

Chuck sat there, savoring the taste that lingered on his tongue. There were other notes, past the chocolate and the caramel. A hint of honey, a whiff of fruit. The old man was still glaring at him.

“I wanted to be the best chocolate factory manager I could, so I studied. I took classes, I learned. Sir, the factory was just… once I really looked at it, it was really inefficient.”

“Was not,” the old man scowled.

Chuck nodded. “And somehow, despite being the most famous chocolate in the world, it wasn’t profitable.”

“I did just fine, I was living quite happily, and so were all of my employees, the whole tribe. Every cent beyond that went right back into the factory, the way it should be, the way all of my businesses run, before and since.”

“Yeah, but…”

Something in Chuck’s belly turned, and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He opened his mouth and a burp escaped, a very small burp, but one tasting unmistakably of blueberry. Suddenly, Chuck’s clothes began to feel very, very tight on him. He looked down at his hands and saw his flesh begin to turn a bright, purplish-blue.

“You weren’t really competing against the other children,” the old man said. “I was perfectly ready to have all five of you run the factory together, as a kind of board.”

Chuck pushed away from the bar as his belly rapidly grew and expanded. His belt snapped like a rubber band, and the seams of his jacket began to tear. Chuck tried to reach for the gun, but his arms had grown so thick he could hardly bend them at all, just stick them out in starfish position, like a toddler in a snowsuit. He tried to step back and tripped over the stool, falling onto his back, bouncing slightly against the wood floor.

“No,” the old man was saying, “the competition was against yourselves. Against your own greed, your own corruptibility. And I wasn’t the final judge, that was Chief Lumpy, and I think it’s pretty obvious what he thought. Oh well. It was an experiment, and by their nature most experiments are doomed to failure. Live and learn.”

The gun fell out of Chuck’s pocket and clattered onto the floor, just out of reach. He began rocking himself back and forth on his inflated, blueberry-shaped back. He could still get to the gun. He could still give the old man the bullet he deserved. He just had to reach for it; just had to get his fat, blue fingers around the stock. He almost had it, just a little bit closer…

The old man paid for his own and Chuck’s drinks, and left a business card with the bartender, telling him to call the number on it if he needed any help rolling Chuck out of there, that he should just ask for Mungo. Or it might have been “Muon-geo,” Chuck couldn’t hear very well with his ears full of juice.

The old man put on his top hat. Chuck’s fingers grasped at the gun on the floor, accidentally pushing the weapon farther away. The old man walked around him and, leaning on his cane, picked up the gun. He ejected the clip, cleared the chamber, then set it all down on top of the bar, far from Chuck’s reaching blue hands.

“Cheer up, Charlie,” the man said. “Nowhere to go from here but up. Up and out.”

He chuckled at his own, private little joke, then tipped his hat to Chuck.

“Good day, sir,” he said, and then he was gone.

{ X }

E.L. SIEGELSTEIN is originally from Brooklyn, but has now migrated south to Louisville, Kentucky with his wife and his cat and his 1-year-old baby girl. He is the author of the horror-comedy/suspense novel “Lovebites & Sunguns,” currently seeking a publisher, and his work has also appeared on the teen pop culture blog Mindhut. He can be found on Instagram @ericsiegs.

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